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A Christmas mystery: An interview with Mark Shanahan

A Sherlock Carol
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Mark Shanahan is a prolific playwright and director. His adaptations include the Off Broadway hit comedy, The Ding Dong, or How the French Kiss — and NPR’s audio storytelling Ghostlight series. He's also performed in a number of productions at the Westport country Playhouse. His latest production, A Sherlock Carol, takes the traditional holiday story of A Christmas Carol and transforms it into a mystery. And it's currently on stage at New World Stages in New York City. WSHU's Tom Kuser speaks with Mark Shanahan about this production.

Tom Kuser: This isn’t your first adaptation of A Christmas Carol. You also directed a Merry Little Christmas Carol, and A Christmas Story. You'll be directing a script in hand version of A Christmas Carol. What is it about this particular story that draws you to it?

Mark Shanahan: Well, it's funny, I actually didn't grow up with A Christmas Carol being something that was part of every Christmas for me. I mean, I knew it as well as anyone else did. And my favorite adaptation was always the Muppet Christmas Carol, which is actually really as true to the book as any version has been. But it wasn't something that was very, very close to me, and part of my own growing up traditional Christmas, things to do around the holidays.

Then I was approached to commission a version of it for the stage. And it's been done so often, and so many times in so many ways that I had to figure out what would be particular to me in that version. And I wrote it for five actors. And I'm happy to say it's being done around the country tonight. It's happening in several theaters. But then, after I'd finished working on it, I was acting in a production of The Weir, a Conor McPherson ghost story, another great ghost story. And another actor, Drew McVety, who was in the play with me, he and I would get on stage and go down to the dressing room, and for the last 10 minutes of the play, we would you know, kibitz until the curtain call. And I told him that I was listening to his voice, he had a great monologue in the play. And I was thinking I could write a play for him. And there's a play that's been kicking around in my head for some time. And he said, “Well, you should go write that play.” And I'd have this idea to combine Sherlock Holmes story with A Christmas Carol with the stories of Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge his tale, and try and combine these two loves of mine, and make something new out of it.

I started to write 10 pages at a time and I'd send it off to Drew and he’d say this is terrific. And I thought, well, I hope he's not, you know, just pretending. And he really does like, and we did a reading of it a few months after I finished it. And he brought it to some producers and said, “We should do this thing.” And lo and behold, after COVID has subsided here, we are opening off Broadway at New World Stages on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue. And we're having this wonderful success with it because I think we have just about the best actors, the best design team and audiences seem really primed to come back to the theater now and experience something that's joyful. That's fun. That has an uplifting message, and is a great combination of things that perhaps they thought they knew, about Sherlock Holmes and Scrooge, but get to see all these characters in new and exciting ways.

Tom Kuser: Tell me more about that — that interaction of the literary worlds of Dickens and Doyle. I'm not sure many people would combine them. You said they're things you love and had been sort of rolling around in your head for a while. But tell me more about the coming together of those two worlds.

Mark Shanahan: Well, you know, I was that kid reading The Hound of the Baskervilles under the covers with a flashlight. I remember it distinctly at about 11 years old. And I've loved the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, I really I really devoured them. And they stayed with me. I love all the adaptations that you see from the Cumberbatch to the Downey Jr. to the Jeremy Brett to the Basil Rathbones all the way back. It's such a funny malleable character that you can either spoof or take seriously but also a hard character, Sherlock Holmes, is to to adapt because or to dramatize because he essentially stays the same.

The funny thing about doing the Sherlock Carol is he's a character who distinctly says in the story that no ghosts need apply; he doesn't believe in the supernatural. He's just somebody who believes in reason, in fact, and so to put him up against a story about Ebenezer Scrooge who not only dearly believes in ghosts, but is changed by them seemed to be a funny thing to put together.

But they're two worlds that I think in this sort of Victorian sense people love, and combining them meant putting titanic characters from literature together, which is fun. And to see how would they speak to each other. What would happen? So I took a story — Arthur Conan Doyle’s only Sherlock Holmes Christmas story, The Adventure the Blue Carbuncle — and I took a few ideas out of that, and decided what would happen if a grown up Tiny Tim approached Sherlock Holmes and said, “My benefactors mysteriously died. You must help me.” And we find Sherlock Holmes, who has lost his great enemy in Professor Moriarty. And the play begins with a take off on the "Marley's dead" idea of saying Moriarty is dead. What does he do when he finds that he's lost his will to be Sherlock Holmes? And he has to go about this particular Christmas Eve, haunted by the ghost of Moriarty, but maybe meeting up with a different kind of ghost and reckoning with his own past, present and future as he solves a mystery and learns to be himself again.

Tom Kuser: I was going to ask you how a murder mystery sort of genre fits in with a Christmas theme. You mentioned it's an uplifting story, though.

Mark Shanahan: Yeah, I like to think that we have six actors playing multiple roles with a flip of a hat and with the change of a costume in the wings, which our crew is amazing at doing. Within seconds an actor can walk off and walk back on to someone else. It really is a celebration of the theater as much as anything about actors and playmakers and what it means to come together as an audience and sit together and watch a story. And I wanted to take a sort of heartwarming Christmas tale, but also add this element of suspense element of… I love a murder mystery. I mean, if I ever had to solve a murder in real life... we'd be lost. I couldn't do it. But to put it together for a play and also make it a comedy, make it joyful, make it something that is for for all ages, seems to be the kind of thing that was that I was thirsting for myself. And I wanted to sort of craft it and put the best of both of these worlds together.

Tom Kuser: You mentioned the cast and the cast of A Sherlock Carol includes Broadway stars Drew McVety, of Billy Elliot and Spamalot fame and Tom Sesma of Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures. What was the experience like collaborating with these actors? And I guess really everyone involved in the production? What's that like?

Mark Shanahan: Well, I have to admit that a lot of the actors from Dan Dominguez Anissa, Felix, Isabel Keating, Mark Price, Tom, and Drew, and also our wonderful covers, and a lot of people on the design team, these are a lot of old friends that I've been able to work with. So there's been a great shorthand. Honestly, sometimes the best thing to do is stand back and watch these incredible excellent actors go to town with what I wrote at my kitchen table in the middle of the night and try and make it so much better. And they have.

I will say that all of the characters that we think we meet, from various Fezziwigs to Dr. Watsons, and all the combinations of characters from both Dickens and Doyle and all these people that we think we know. So we do meet Ebenezer Scrooge. But it's always occurred to me that a Scrooge is usually thought of as a miser, somebody who is terrible. But maybe the word Scrooge should be used to talk about somebody who is brave and can change. It should be a compliment to be a Scrooge to actually look at yourself and say, I have faults and I want to change become my best self.

Tom Sesma came in and has been able to reinvent Ebenezer Scrooge as the positive Scrooge, the Scrooge who gave things away and helped people for many years after Christmas Carol. And when we meet him, and we hear how he lived, we reevaluate what we think a Scrooge is just as I hope that we'll reevaluate what a Sherlock Holmes is, and what it means to be somebody who's supposed to be a hero, but doesn't always feel like one.

Tom Kuser: Something about the process of a play. It's in the second second week of performance, I believe, and as it progresses in, you mentioned the actors bring their own their own pieces, their own ideas to the performances. Does it change as it goes along? As the playwright and the director, if that happens, are you OK with that?

Mark Shanahan: Well, you know, the funny thing is, it's, I have to admit, maybe I shouldn't say this in front of a microphone, but I have to admit, it was a terrifying experience to be the writer-director, because as a director, you can always blame the writer and as a writer, you can always blame the director. And here I was without anywhere to hide.

So the best line of defense is to ask the best actors you know. Because actors are extraordinary. Actors can save the day and navigate a scene and land the laugh and then also in a second, make you well up and get a catch in your throat — and these actors do. I have such implicit trust in the cast we have, because they seem very proud to be telling the story.

A Christmas Carol, generally, when it's done in theaters around the country is often the first time some theater goers ever go to the theater. And sometimes it's the first time a kid goes to the theater, which is important. And we've seen kids coming in and I've noticed that our actors feel kind of, I'm gonna say, house proud of telling the story and they sort of are stewards that are curating these characters that we're just borrowing from Dickens and Doyle to tell something new and trying to do something new with them.

So I'm not at all worried that they'll ever go off the path and do something I wouldn't want them to because I learned so much going into rehearsal every day and watching them clown. And I mean that in the sort of purest sense in a traditional clown, bit of artistry, come up with physical comedy, physical humor, and then also be able to take my breath away with how heartfelt they are. It really does surprise me at the end of the play. I know it's a little some something I was scribbling at my table, but there are times where they really do make me get a catch in my throat because they've figured out things that I didn't even know are in the play there.

Tom Kuser: What was your first theater-going experience?

Mark Shanahan: Theater-going? Well, I grew up in New York. So I was really lucky that my mom and dad and my grandparents often would take me to see plays. I don't remember my first but I can distinctly remember my mom when I was a kid taking us to a Broadway show, where we were high up in the balcony, like way up, you know, on a very steep balcony. And as I leaned forward, I remember my mother constantly putting her hand in front of me worried — because I was so interested in the play — that I was gonna fall over the back.

Tom Kuser: When did you when did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in the theatrical arts?

Mark Shanahan: Oh, that's funny. I had terrible stage fright as a kid and I would, yeah, I'd do anything to beg out of being in the play at school, I really would. I had no desire to get up there and do that. I do, I can still recite, I played Father Time and The Winter's Tale in eighth grade, I can still recite that passage. But I had a great teacher in high school who said, "You're hiding from this, and you have the ability to tell stories, and you should get out there." And I didn't really believe him. It's the power of what a great teacher can do for you. And then he said, "Too bad again, you're going to be in the next play." And he put me in there and there was no turning back. I just loved it. And I'm still in touch with that teacher and many of the teachers from high school who did change my life in that regard.

Tom Kuser: We mentioned earlier that one of the adaptations of a Christmas Carol that you wrote and directed is something called a script-in-hand of performance. Tell us a little bit about what that is. And what's special about it.

Mark Shanahan: I appreciate your asking this. I've, for a long time — I guess I did the math — for almost 20 years now, I've been working with the Westport Country Playhouse. It's a place that's very special to me. The artists and the actors and the friends I've met there, including in the audience, have been a big part of my life now.

And in the last few years, I've been working as the curator of the script-in-hand series, something that was first put forth by Annie Keefe at the Westport Country Playhouse and succeeding her and putting up these script-in-hand nights on certain Mondays during the course of the year, we get great audiences and we do plays that sometimes might not get done anymore. And sometimes we get to do a new play, get to take a little chance, but we have a really loyal script-in-hand audience and this coming Monday, we're going to do a staged reading of a Merry Little Christmas Carol, which was my adaptation of A Christmas Carol and it's going to be narrated by our artistic director Mark Lamos.

And as we're all just gearing up to sort of put our foot forward and figure out what it means to come back to creating an audience to go back to being in the theater after this very difficult time away, it seemed like a fun and wonderful idea to do a story that would be Playhouse-centric, that would feel hosted by our artistic director that would feel like old home week to let people feel comfortable and coming back and then surprise them by doing something a little bit different with them and I think that's what they'll find this coming Monday when we do our script-in-hand if anyone's interested in that they can go online at Westport Country Playhouse’s website.

Tom Kuser: And script-in-hand literally means the the players the actors are on stage with scripts in hand?

Mark Shanahan: Yes. While down on off Broadway at a Sherlock Carol there is a full on production, which is exhausting, I'm glad I don't have to do it every night. I think, “How are they doing this? It must be exhausting.” Here at the Playhouse we have our actors with a binder at a music stand doing it for one night only. And we have an extraordinary group of actors coming together to make this. And it's always funny to me that after script-in-hand, people will tell me, “Oh, that was a great production I saw last year,” and I have to remind them it wasn't a production. And they say, “Yeah, I saw the whole set,” and I said there was no set. It was just a script.

Tom Kuser: Well it’s sort of like a radio play right? How one was staged.

Mark Shanahan: Yeah. And you know you and I have had the experience I've been able to curate and the radio series for the Playhouse that airs here on WSHU. We've done so many great ghost stories, including A Christmas Carol which will be airing again this year.

Tom Kuser: One more question. What advice would you give to aspiring young aspiring playwrights?

Mark Shanahan: Oh that is a good question. You know, it seems so daunting.

Tom Kuser: It seems like an incredibly difficult, challenging, perhaps discouraging career to pursue.

Mark Shanahan: You know, I, I guess it is, but I'm always astounded by the idea that you can't keep a good story down. And storytellers find a way to do it. And the theater can be awfully humiliating and hard at times and difficult and just when you think you got something right, you know, an audience hates it. I don't know that I have advice so much as sympathy and comradeship to anybody who pursues it. I think it's so hard to launch a play, and get a new piece of work done in the modern American theater. And to that, I feel that you just have to keep plugging away and put it in front of everyone you can. And there are new plays, festivals or workshops. And you know, an older actor once told me when I was in my early 20s, “Find your stage. Wherever it is, find your stage.” And it's been such good advice in a way because you can't plan necessarily how it's gonna go. But, you know, there is a stage out there that you can get your story seen on and then you just keep plugging away at it and you have to be relentless, but you also have to love it and I love people who love what they do. So I feel like I'm always around such good people.

Mark Shanahan wrote and is directing a Sherlock Carol. It's running at New World stages in New York City until Sunday, January 2, 2022.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.